Evaluate sociocultural explanati

Evaluate sociocultural explanations of the origins of violence

Social Learning Theory

Bandura (1977) suggests that people learn to behave violently (including violent attitudes and norms) through direct experiences and through observing models.

  • Social learning theory focuses on observational learning and modeling. The theory proposes that children learn to be violent due to exposure to violent models and because violent behavior is rewarded. The support for this proposition comes from the results of the classic Bobo doll experiment (Bandura et al., 1961) showing that children who watched an aggressive model being rewarded for aggression were likely to imitate the aggression later.
  • Social learning theory (SLT) has been applied to explain the development of aggression and intergenerational transmission of violence through socialization. Children are influenced by socialization factors such as the family, the immediate environment (including peers), and the media.
  • Social learning can be direct via instructions or indirect (e.g. role models and no direct instructions). Children who grow up in violent families and neighborhoods where they watch models use violence and obtain benefits from it (e.g. power) may be likely to see violence as a legitimate means to get what they want or exert power over other people. They may even justify the use of violence.

Strengths of SLT in relation to violent behavior

  • Social norms of violence can be transmitted from parents to children as predicted by SLT.
  • SLT can also explain that adolescents use violence in marginalized social peer groups because it pays off in the form of status (reinforcement).

Limitations of SLT in relation to violent behavior

  • SLT cannot explain how structural factors such as poverty contribute to establishing the social norms of male superiority.
  • The theory does not take individual factors such as intelligence and personality into account.
  • Some people may be more prone to violence (e.g. due to brain damage as a result of childhood abuse).


Studies to use: Bandura and Ross (1961)  and/or Totten (2003)

Subculture of violence theory (Wolfgang and Ferracuti, 1967)

  • According to the theory violent behavior results from a commitment to sub cultural norms and values. Individual violent values lead to violent behavior because sub cultural values act as a mechanism of social control among group members.
  • Violence is used as a means to defend honor and maintain status (e.g. within the group, in the family, or in relation to other groups). If members of subcultures perceive threats to reputation or honor they will defend their honor with violence if necessary, even if it threatens their life.
  • The theory was developed based on work in an inner-city African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia. It was suggested that the subculture of violence phenomenon was a lower-class masculine phenomenon related to race. This is now contested.

Evaluation of the theory of subculture of violence


  • The theory can explain how violence may be used to establish and maintain power within a social group (i.e. to establish social hierarchies). Dominance and power could also be one explanation of school bullying (e.g. Gest et al., 2003, found that bullies are seen as popular and “cool”).
  • The theory does not explain what sociocultural structural factors could lead to violence because the primary focus is on social norms and values as the origin of violence. High rates of violence could be the result of poverty and class oppression rather than a culture of honour (Anderson, 1999).

·         Nisbett and Cohen (1996) found support for the theory’s proposition that violence is used to maintain honour in the Southern states of the USA where there are high rates of violence. They argue that a “culture of honour” seems to have survived from the herding economies brought to the area by Irish and Scottish settlers between the 17th and 19th centuries.


Could biological factors cause violence?

  • Testosterone is a steroid male sex hormone secreted in the testes of males and in the ovaries of females. Men produce ten times more testosterone than women.
  • Testosterone has been linked to aggression and dominance behavior because castration of a male usually has a pacifying effect on aggressive behavior in males.
  • The relationship between aggression and testosterone is complex and difficult to test scientifically because measurement of testosterone levels from blood or saliva is not reliable.